I read a couple of articles recently about Young Adult fiction recently which got the cogs turning in my brain. This is a rambling collection of some thoughts that tumbled from that. I make absolutely no claim that they will make any sense or come to a specific conclusion, although I’ll do my best. Both articles are linked below.
YA is a relatively new and therefore exciting area of publishing, writing, and buying books. Of course books featuring and indeed largely enjoyed by ‘young adults’ have existed for a lot longer than the Teenage section of bookshops, but that section has grown hugely since I was thirteen. And being a shift in how books are written, marketed and sold, it puts these books in their own sort of spotlight for discussion – the value of what young adults are reading is an old anxiety, made a little easier. I remember this happening when I was younger – upset parents who had read a single page from Bad Girls by Jacqueline Wilson and were horrified at the content. Similar to exam invigilators who dislike poems that mention knives.
Should we ignore Young Adult fiction because it is written for teenagers? Perhaps, because teenagers are notoriously stupid, lazy, hoodie-wearing louts? Or perhaps, because it’s written for teenagers, not adults, and adults don’t belong in these fictional worlds? Or because it’s written for young minds, does that mean it’s of lower quality? Easier? Less challenging?
The value and importance of literature is an ever changing conversation which varies so much with perspective – what purpose we feel literature should serve for different audiences at different ages is a conversation full of overlapping objective and subjective viewpoints, often based on a personal logic but always coloured by what we feel and experience ourselves. The value of literature as a contribution itself is a contested conversation – should it be honest, should it be escapist, should it teach us something or allow us to escape the lessons we don’t wish to learn? What does it teach us implicitly, quietly, without us noticing, whether it meant to or not? But this all becomes so much muddier when applied to children’s and young adult fiction in particular – because what young people read, learn and love is important to adults. There is always a desire to understand the new generation just growing into themselves, and a judgement made about that from what young people consume and occupy their time with.
Every generation in history despairs of the new one, but I find it fascinating (and hilarious) the new ways we pick to do that. Once it was the introduction of written novels, meaning youngsters would never appreciate the value of learning and speaking them (no, really) – and now, it’s the value of Louise Rennison or the violence of The Hunger Games. While I’m a Twilight critic, for a time the books became a lightning rod for dismissing and mocking the interests of teenage girls. They are a cultural reference now, some sort of joke, and the major fuel behind this was not the abusive relationship it idolised, but the fact that it inspired young women to screaming adoration. If the bafflement of women’s enthusiasm for 50 Shades was mostly adults laughing together, the mockery of it’s predecessor was only laughing at younger girls.
Some fiction published as Young Adult has recognised cross-over appeal, and gets multiple editions to market it to different ages, Harry Potter being the obvious example. It’s also one of few series to follow its protagonists into adulthood with the Epilogue of The Dealthy Hallows and the new play The Cursed Child. It’s impossible to read Entertainment and Arts news at the moment without coming across new elements of the Harry Potter stories that are everywhere – it has enough of a place in the current cultural cannon that you’d have to look for a while to find somebody who hadn’t heard of it.
Fiction written for older teenagers has crossover appeal as well though – Louise O’Neill’s second book Asking For It, with its bold sociopolitical message and strong feminist underpinnings has two editions because, as she mentioned at a reading I attended a few weeks ago, her publishers approached it with the belief that everyone should read this book – everyone should be invited to pick it up and understand what it has to say, beyond certain concerns about age-appropriate content. And this idea of books we should read brings me onto the territory of the other article I read – because I wonder if older generations have a lot of anxiety about what young adults are reading because they don’t know it.
There are a lot of books out there which are touted as Must Read – Pinterest lists and recommendations compiled from English teachers or librarians. These lists change as you get older – what children are considered lacking without having experienced expands to a further list of what a well-read adult should have made their way through. My grandmother has in the past been shocked to discover that I haven’t read something she deems essential to personal development. Mostly, these books are what we call classics. Perhaps they were Contemporary at the time the recommender read them, but mostly, we hear the same names on these lists, and the same texts crop up on GCSE and A Level syllabi. If you’re particularly influential, your opinion of what people Must Read will shape the education of a huge number of young people, be it having to study Shakespeare or skipping American fiction because Mr Gove didn’t like Of Mice and Men.
I have often wondered, of adults reading YA, why they do it, and what they want or expect to find. Statistics about how much YA fiction is bought and read by adults are measured, but the impetus behind it less clearly understood. What makes adults read YA fiction? Is it for the enjoyment of the stories – should we be encouraged that YA gems are not being lost for the market they choose to publish in? Or is it to police the interests of young people, to check up on what sons and daughters are reading? At a certain age, a parent vetting something for their offspring might seem reasonable, but at a certain age, that sort of policing ceases to be fair, and certainly once we’re in the 16-24 year old target demographic.
As a young person, a desire to impress or please those older than us is common and pressuring. I spent years reading Shakespeare and Austen, Nesbit and Blyton, because when I read Meg Cabot and Louise Rennison, the adults around me were not receptive to my expressions of enthusiasm, in part possibly only because they did not know the books. And while some were keen to listen, the reluctance we have in general to consider new fiction as valuable as older ‘classics’ prevents us from recognising how young people are approaching them – which is to say, in the same way. While older texts have more attached to them, if we were not so hounded by the need must should, those young readers have a fresher perspective, free of the baggage and expectation – the same way they are reading modern fiction. Young readers are in that enviable position of having almost everything still to read, and I wish that there were a way while venerating the best literature we have, to still preserve that enjoyment without the pressure.
I think the reason CS Lewis, Lewis Caroll, E Nesbit, Enid Blyton, Roald Dahl and Charles Dickens are the ones that most often get mentioned and listed are because they are easy answers – if you ask a large group of people, they are ones very likely to be often repeated. Voices shouting up newer titles are surely there, but drowned out by the cling to what people read in their own childhoods, the joy they felt which they want to relive with their own children. And this makes perfect sense, of course. Respondees to these types of surveys may be asked what do you think all children should read, but essentially the question they answer is a little different – the answers are a colour of what did me the most good. The recommendations are not outward-facing but retrospective; which I suppose is inevitable, if all advice is eventually autobiographical. And parents of children look forward to sharing with them what they enjoyed as a child – of course that is what they want their children to read, because they have those fond memories with their parents.
But I suppose that is the thing we can be aware of – what made it special as a child, and whether it was in part the act of sharing in something somebody else loved. Perhaps this is why exam texts are so easy to be put off, because they are so often presented in the wrong spirit. When we receive recommendations out of joy – out of love – rather than expectation and tradition, that is when the magic catches new readers.
Most YA fiction is grown-up fiction in disguise – Anthony McGowan for The Guardian
Stop pushing the same ‘classic’ books on children and trust modern writing – Samantha Shannon for The Guardian